Riots in France Ease After Massive Nationwide Police Deployment

Street unrest eased sharply in France overnight after a series of riots and looting touched off by a police officer’s fatal shooting of a teenager.

(Bloomberg) — Street unrest eased sharply in France overnight after a series of riots and looting touched off by a police officer’s fatal shooting of a teenager.

The number of arrests dropped to 157 into Monday, according to government figures, down from more than than 700 the previous night and 1,300 the night before that. A firefighter died battling a blaze in an underground parking lot, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in a tweet.

While tensions have ebbed, the shooting of Nahel, a 17-year-old of North African descent, remains a flashpoint in a crisis over racism and inequality in France that’s drawing comparisons with America’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. 

“We have to remain cautious,” Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said on France Inter radio when asked whether unrest had calmed down overnight.

French President Emmanuel Macron met with key cabinet ministers into the evening hours on Sunday in an attempt to craft a response to the violence, which is testing his authority and ability to carry out reforms. He kept some 45,000 police, special forces and armored vehicles deployed to contain clashes that have left hundreds of public buildings and shops damaged or ransacked in cities including Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Strasbourg.

Macron will meet on Tuesday with some 220 French mayors to discuss the situation, Agence France-Presse reported after the cabinet talks.

The unrest is another political minefield for Macron after he pushed through an increase in France’s retirement age that was preceded by months of strikes and protests. Images of riot police once again battling in the streets further tarnish the country’s reputation, potentially adding to the economic toll just as the government faces pressure to restore public finances.

“What Macron needs to do is develop substantive policies to address the problems faced by these youths,” Vivien A. Schmidt, a professor of European integration at Boston University, said by email. “Unfortunately, however, it is not clear that he even recognizes the problem.”

The boy’s grandmother appealed for calm on Sunday, telling BFM TV that rioters were using his death on June 27 as a “pretext.”

French government spokesman Olivier Veran said “there is no political message” in ransacking a store during the night. “I don’t call these scenes of looting a movement,” he told France Inter radio. 

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The rioting, mostly by youths from working-class neighborhoods, is once again laying bare the societal chasms. Some of the most violent clashes happened in the port city of Marseille, which Macron visited last week to pledge help for community projects.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on Saturday tallied up damage to about a dozen shopping malls and more than 700 supermarkets, banks and stores, some of which were reduced to rubble. Nearing the height of the summer tourist season, countries including the UK have put in place travel warnings for France.

The French opposition at both ends of the political spectrum has seized on the crisis as evidence that the government is failing to ensure public safety and narrow economic disparity.  

Politicians including far-right leader Marine Le Pen have rallied to condemn one attack in particular — the ramming of a burning car into the home of the mayor of L’Hay-les-Roses, a Paris suburb. Stephane Hardouin, a public prosecutor, said authorities were investigating “attempted murder” after the mayor’s partner and two young children escaped the house through a back door.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin visited the town Sunday. “We’ll continue to bring order as quickly as possible,” Borne said. “No mayor will be left alone.” 

Labor unrest and street demonstrations happen regularly in France but have taken on a more intense and confrontational tone in recent years, reflecting divisions within French society. Before the pension protests and the pandemic, the so-called Yellow Vest movement already caused widespread property damage. 

The nationwide unrest prompted Macron to postpone a rare state visit by a French president to Germany, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz called images of the clashes “very dispiriting” on Sunday. 

Nahel, whose last name has been withheld by authorities, was buried Saturday in Nanterre, his hometown where he was shot at close range in a car. The officer who fired the gun has been charged with murder and is in pre-trial detention. Laurent-Franck Lienard, a lawyer for the officer, told Europe 1 radio that the policeman believed he needed to shoot. 

–With assistance from Max Reyes, Iain Rogers and Jenny Che.

(Updates with drop in arrests from first paragraph.)

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